EducationNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 20

What about special children education in coronavirus era?

Masoom Fatima feels completely helpless these days. For the last over three months, she is home, getting bored all the time. While her four siblings log in to special websites/ links, given by their schools, to submit their assignments, or download new assignments, she only takes out her braille books from her bag for some time, and then puts them back. She doesn’t feel like reading them, doing mathematics or writing anything when she knows it clearly nobody in her house is going to appreciate her efforts in this regard.

Masoom is an eighth grader at the Govt Secondary Institute for the Blind Girls in Allama Iqbal Town, Lahore. Like all other educational institutions in the country, her school was also closed by the Punjab government in the first week of March, after the coronavirus pandemic outbreak in the country.

In the beginning, it was really fun for her, no early rising, no going to school and no daily lessons. But in only a month, she started feeling bored at home. All her siblings had started getting lessons at home and submitting their assignments, but there was nothing for her. Her eldest brother, an F.Sc. second-year student, who was her most favourite and closest friend among all siblings, had also got busy. The government had launched a special television channel, TeleSchool, for him and for all other students from class one to twelve, but there was nothing for her.

She started missing her school badly. She missed standing in the morning assembly for the prayer, listening to Quranic verses recitation, and singing Allama Iqbal’s poem “Bachay Ki Dua.”

Many a time sitting alone, she would start reciting it to herself:

“Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri

Zindagi shamma ki surat ho Khudaya meri”

(My longing comes to my lips as supplication of mine; O God! May like the beauty of the candle be the life of mine).

After the assembly, all class in-charge teachers used to hold a hand of the foremost student standing in the row and lead them to their classes. All other students would follow her by putting their hands on the shoulders of each other making a “train” in their own lingo.

Studying different subjects one after the other used to be real enjoyment for her, as she is one of the most punctual and brilliant students of her class. Spending one period on the lawns of the school, along with her teacher, and attending the music class used to be the most loving moments of the day for her daily.

And now, she misses every moment of her school life, especially when her siblings watch movies, talk of colourful dresses of actors and comment on the scenic beauty of movie sets.

Masoom Fatima is not the only special student, who is missing her school and her studies. There are tens of hundreds of Masoom Fatimas, who are longing for resumption of their studies. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the country’s total population after the 2017 census is 207.774 million, and those with different disabilities are numbered 3,286,630, or 3.286 million. That means over 1.58pc population of the country is living with different disabilities. Also, the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities estimated that 2.49 per cent of the population is disabled.

However, sociologists believe the number is much underreported in the country. World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates also back the viewpoint of Pakistani sociologists, which show that the general prevalence of disability is 10 per cent the world over. How can Pakistan be an exception?

Bushra Akram, an assistant professor at the Psychology Department of the University of Gujrat, says in her research paper that many parents tend to conceal the fact that they have a disabled child. They mostly deny the presence of disability in their children considering it a social stigma, hence a less number of disabled persons in the country.

She says in her research paper that generally, there is lack of awareness about the nature of disability among people. Individuals with disabilities are regarded as unfortunate ones, who cannot perform their roles correctly or effectively. Usually, the parents and relatives view their children with disabilities as an economic burden and the result of family sins. Therefore, they mostly do not consider the provision of education to them necessary, she adds.

Prof. Bushra Akram says that parents themselves do not have the required education and training to understand their children with special needs and, therefore, the majority of them are not actively involved in their children’s education, like in the case of Masoom Fatima. Importantly, schools also do not want to involve parents in the learning process, hence, more hurdles to the way of the disabled persons to get an education, adds the researcher.

The professor regrets that education for special children had never been a priority even for government authorities. Even in normal circumstances, education for the disabled gets place at the end of the priority list, what to talk of special arrangements for coronavirus pandemic-hit children with disabilities, she adds.

Talking to Cutting Edge by telephone, Prof. Bushra Akram says that long after the independence, there were only few educational institutes for the special children. In 1959, for the first time, the National Commission presented a plan to the government for the education of special people. Progress was seen between 1983 and 1992, when the United Nations Organisation (UNO) declared the time the decade of the disabled persons. The Pakistan National Policy for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Disabled was formulated in 1985 and improved in1988. The government of Pakistan approved the policy in October, 2002, after 17 long years of its formation.

Relating the historical details, the professor says that in 1985, at the federal level, a separate directorate was established to run model special education schools throughout the country. In addition, the National Institute of Special Education was established to provide in-service training to teachers of special schools.

Today, the Directorate General of Special Education runs 56 institutions focused on the educational and rehabilitation of children with special needs. At the provincial level, the Punjab government recently established a separate Department of Special Education under the direct supervision of the Chief Minister, which runs 48 special schools. The provincial government also recently opened 90 special schools at the district level. However, thinking of some special arrangements for the special children is still an uphill task.

Rabia Imtiaz, a teacher at an institute for the visually impaired children, has her own side of the story. In a special talk with Cutting Edge, she says that abrupt school closures in the wake of the virus pandemic has hindered the provision of special education also, which is administered through carefully constructed plans, called individualised education programmes (IEPs). She says normal students could be facilitated through the launch of TeleSchool, or introduction of some apps, or web links. But the IEPs for special children require extensive services that are not easily transferred to the internet, even for the families, who have access.

About involving parents in the process of imparting education to special children through distance learning, the teacher says that taking care of special children as well as their educational and learning needs is an uphill task. Parents definitely have a greater role in distance learning plans for the disabled students, she adds.

Rabia Imtiaz says that the thought that children’s educational progress will be stunted if the lockdown continues for a long time, worries both teachers and parents. The biggest concern for both is that without the quick advent of a homeschool-adaptable curriculum, the students would regress and our efforts made for them may be wasted if the lockdown continues for a year or so. The teacher says not every family has the space or technology to sit and work with their kids.

Ms. Rabia says some developed countries have found out a way out. They have assigned the teachers the task of visiting their students at their homes one by one once or twice a week. The teachers there, while observing the standard operating procedures (SOPs), visit their students with paper packets of school work for face-to-face lessons at their homes. However, she regrets, the plans could not be replicated in Pakistan immediately for lack of resources and other hurdles. But, she believes, government authorities would find out a way out soon, like the TeleSchool initiative, for the special children also.